Let’s call it a Wednesday, mid-afternoon. Lunch is a distant memory and you’re starting to feel a bit peckish. Just then, your phone buzzes. It’s your partner, parent, roommate or child, asking, “What’s for dinner?”
If you’re like most people, that question is a source of low-volume stress every single day. In fact, the average person (me included) faces five stumbling blocks:
- No ideas for what to cook
- No groceries to make whatever idea we do come up with
- Short on skills or equipment
- No time
- Out of sync (not everyone in the house eats the same things or at the same time)
There’s a fix to all of these problems, but it isn’t particularly glamorous or thrilling, and you might groan at the next two words: meal planning.
Hear me out! Meal planning creates a framework to fall back on. It’s the first line of defence against all the dark arts conspiring to make you order take-out or convincing you to eat cereal standing over the kitchen sink. It puts you in the driver’s seat and makes you proactive instead of reactive. After decades of teaching home cooks, I can vouch that meal planning and shopping are the two most underrated, under-discussed (and yet most critical) elements of getting dinner on the table.
Having a meal plan is also the best way to save money on your weekly food bill. With a plan, we make fewer impulse buys when grocery shopping and decide against picking up those aspirational ingredients we buy then never use (I’m looking at you, jar of sauerkraut at the back of my fridge), as well as those extra ingredients that end up in the compost bin. Plus, with a plan in place—and the groceries on hand—we’re much less likely to order take-out or delivery.
Don’t worry if you’ve tried meal planning before and found it didn’t stick. I bristle against rules, so the classic two-week meal plan has never worked for me (and I’ve tried many times). Luckily, there are four other methods that still deliver all the benefits.
The Camper method assigns a theme or protein to each day of the week, just like at summer camp (e.g. Taco Tuesdays, Chicken Wednesdays, Breakfast for Dinner Thursdays). The themes repeat every week or two, but the recipes themselves can change.
Maybe you have time on the weekend to stock the fridge and freezer with big-batch recipes, then dish them out over the week. The Batcher system is perfect for people who have next to no cooking time during the week.
If your day-to-day schedule changes on a dime, you might prefer to pencil in just three or four dinners and lean on quick pantry meals on other nights. This Semi system works well for me, and it’s also a perfect starter system for anyone who is reluctant to try mal planning.
The fourth system, the Wingnut, is for those people who truly prefer to fly by the seat of their dinner chairs and simply rely on a well-stocked fridge and pantry. It’s a great system for retired chefs or young couples who don’t mind popping out to the grocery store at the last-minute, but not terribly helpful for most of the rest of us.
Whatever framework makes sense for your life, there are two critical pieces I recommend for everyone. First, have a back-up plan—what I call a back-pocket dinner. This is a meal you can make without a recipe, using pantry staples, and in very little time. Back-pocket dinners are typically really simple dishes. My own is garlic spaghetti—a dish of pasta, oil, garlic and Parmesan. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been so close to ordering delivery only to realize that garlic spaghetti is faster, cheaper and smarter, well, I’d be rich. So bring on the grilled cheese sandwiches, the fridge-clearing omelettes and the pita pizzas. When you can feed the family from what’s in the pantry, you’ve got a superpower.
The second piece is to designate one night a week to eat what’s in the house. Whether that’s leftovers or something from the freezer, eating what you’ve got before buying anything new just makes sense. In our house, we call it Scraps Night and it’s usually on a Monday when we have a variety of leftovers from the weekend. This simple weekly ritual dramatically reduces food waste (and money waste!). If there’s nothing obvious to use up or eat up, just lean on that back-pocket dinner.
While meal planning might feel tiresome or limiting at first, it will likely grow on you. (It certainly did for me.) I love how meal planning saves me time, money and energy, but most of all, I love having an answer to that daily “what’s for dinner?” question. It eliminates the dull stress of decision fatigue, and that’s a high-five everyone needs!
Recipe: Crispy Chicken with Spicy Black Bean Rice
Prep time 20 minutes | Ready in about 50 minutes | Serves 4
This is a fabulous cast iron pan dinner. Rice and black beans form the base and soak up all the flavours of the dish and the chicken, perched on top, gets crispy while staying very juicy. I like to bring the whole pan to the table for serving, for additional flourish.
The beans make this dish hearty enough to serve four, but if you’re feeding big appetites feel free to roast some more chicken thighs on a separate pan (brush with oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper first).
1 teaspoon salt, divided
4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 small green pepper, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 jalapeno, minced
2 teaspoons ground cumin
540-mL can black beans, rinsed
2 cups chicken broth
3/4 cup basmati rice
- Preheat the oven to 375°F. Heat a 10- or 12-inch oven-safe frying pan over high (cast iron is perfect here). Sprinkle about 1/4 teaspoon of the salt over the skin of the chicken. Add the oil to the pan, then add the chicken skin-side-down and cook, without touching it, for about 3 minutes, or until the skin is golden. Transfer to a plate and reduce the heat to medium low.
- Add the onions and green peppers and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 2 minutes, or until they start to soften. Stir in the garlic, jalapeno, cumin and the remaining salt and cook about 1 minute. Stir in the beans and broth, increase the heat to high and bring to a boil. Once it boils, turn off the heat and sprinkle the rice on top. Smooth the rice so it’s submerged but don’t stir it—if the rice ends up on the bottom of the pan, it might burn. Place the chicken skin- side-up over the rice.
- Carefully transfer the pan to the oven and bake 30 to 35 minutes, or until the rice is tender and the chicken is golden and fully cooked. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.
Recipe originally published in Dinner Uncomplicated by Claire Tansey. For more information or to order, visit clairetansey.com.